Yitro: Messaging tips from heaven

Parshat Yitro is the Torah's primer on proper and effective communication.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

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Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Contemporary society does an absolutely awful job at communicating. Despite possession of the most advanced communication tools ever known, modern man would earn an F in Interpersonal Communication 1.0, were there to be such a course (and there should be!).

Be it parental distraction and detachment from communicating with children, or people's aversion to engage in face-to-face conversation, their refusal to listen to voice messages and their consistent ignoring of emails, we have a major communication problem on our hands.

Let's take a step back to antiquity - to over 3500 years ago, at Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) - and let's try to glean some communication essentials from God Himself as well as from Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our teacher) and our ancestors as they stood at Sinai. Although these communication tips may seem very basic, their precedent and derivation from Mattan Torah elevates them from the plane of common sense and good etiquette to a holy and moral imperative.

Preparation: Klal Yisrael (the Jewish nation)was instructed to rigorously prepare for Mattan Torah over a period of three days, and, according to R. Yose in the Talmud, Moshe added a fourth day of preparation. (Shemot 19:15, Rashi from Gem. Shabbat 87a) When one is about to participate in an important communication, he must be prepared in all ways. Showing up for a meeting without first being mentally/physically/intellectually prepared and presentable will hamper the effectiveness of the encounter and will demonstrate a lack of seriousness and fitness for the task. Becoming knowledgeable in advance as to what is expected, whom the other party is, and how to condition oneself for the discourse are indispensable.

Focus: Rashi tells us (Shemot ibid. v. 14) that when Moshe was readying the nation for Mattan Torah, he did not tend to anything else at the time. He was not distracted and was completely focused on the event at hand. How often do we witness people distracted with their cell phones while attending milestone life events, or reading and responding to emails while in the midst of face-to-face dialogues or meetings? If a person is not focused and "into it" during a personal encounter, his apparent lack of interest and appreciation toward it and the other party become glaringly evident.

Direct Communication: God sought to engage Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) directly and to communicate the Aseret ha-Dibrot (Ten Commandments) to the people without an intermediary (Shemot ibid. v. 9), as that would give the message maximal impact and substantially solidify the relationship between Him and the nation. So too, foundational communications that we conduct, which are very sensitive or which engender a necessary relationship, must be direct and personal. (Think of dating and getting engaged via a shaliach (messenger) or via email!)

Proper Tone: "And Moshe ascended to God, and God called unto him from the mountain, saying: Thus shall you say to the House of Yaakov ('Bait Yaakov') and shall you relate to the Bnei Yisrael ('Sons of Israel')." - Moshe was instructed to speak to the women softly and to communicate the stricter ("firmer") portions of the Torah to the men. (Shemot ibid. v. 3, with Rashi from Mechilta and Gem. Shabbat 87a) A communication is not merely information; the tone and manner of delivery are critical and indispensable. Even though legal notices are presented in sterile and impersonal language, messages that need to impact and stir to action must be specifically tailored to the listener or recipient. This is why cutting and pasting emails without any attention to the individual recipients, or using a boilerplate text for communications that should be personalized and express a relationship, is usually a really bad idea.

Leaving useful messages: Prior to Mattan Torah, God instructed Moshe with all of the details that needed to be related to Bnei Yisrael about the event: what to expect, how to prepare, where to stand, and several dos and don'ts. In other words, God sent Bnei Yisrael a useful, detailed voice message, as it were, and He expected them to listen and act upon it. Please contrast with this:

David (in voice message): "Hi, Yisrael. Can you please tell me whether or not Mrs. Bee brand flavored honey is kosher?"
Yisrael (in voice message reply): Hi, David. I missed your call - just calling you back."

Yisrael failed to reply to a very simple yes or no question. David will call Yisrael again, and if he does not get through, David will leave Yisrael another message with the same specific yes or no question. Yisrael will call David yet again and will probably leave him a voice message telling him once more that "I missed your call - just calling you back". I, for one, and assuredly countless others as well, have often spent up to 10 days of "phone tag" because the other party did not leave a useful message with the necessary information to a basic yes or no-type question that would have taken care of the issue from the start, in the course of one 10-second call. How wasteful.

If God Himself could leave a detailed message, we can and should too!

Responding to Messages: "And Moshe conveyed to God the nation's response." -  The Torah relates this in order for us to learn derech eretz (proper manners) from Moshe, who did not reason that since God obviously knew the nation's response (to His suggestion that the Aseres Ha-Dibrot be communicated directly from Him to Bnei Yisrael), there would thus be no need to convey to Him the response.  (Shemot ibid. v. 8, with Rashi from Mechilta) Moshe taught us, and the Torah saw necessary to record it for perpetuity and practice, that we must reply to a message even if we feel that the other party does not really require the replying.

Ignoring questions that come to us via voice mail or email is not acceptable, despite our belief that an answer to the other party should not actually be necessary. On the contrary, the need to reply to messages is so important as a fundamental expression of derech eretz that the Torah had to specially communicate it to us as part of the Giving of the Torah.

Acknowledging Messages: After each of the Dibrot (Commandments at Sinai), Klal Yisrael answered with an affirmation. (Rashi on Shemot 20:1, from Mechilta) God knew very well that the people accepted the Aseret Ha-Dibrot, for He is omniscient - but despite His knowing everything, Klal Yisrael verbally communicated to God an acceptance of every single Dibrah, acknowledging acceptance thereof. Please contrast with this:
Devorah (in email to Leah): I will come to meet you tomorrow at your home at 8 PM. Or, Please find attached my registration for the seminar, if there is still space for me. Or, Please reverse the charge and credit my bill. Or, my report and expenses are attached; please read/process them.

That's right - no response or acknowledgment. Leah failed to reply with even a simple "Yes".  Devorah is now unsure if Leah will be home for their 8 PM meeting, if her registration was received, if her bill was taken care of, or if her report made it to Leah's computer/desk and if she will be reimbursed. She is left in the dark.

If our ancestors at Sinai saw it appropriate to acknowledge communications from God, Who knows everything and does not need anyone's acknowledgment of His words, all the more so must we acknowledge people's words and messages, so that people who need information will not be concerned lest their messages were not received or their requests were not acted upon. Lack of even minimal acknowledgment is rude and can be damaging (not to mention the fact that the sender will in all likelihood have to spend time resending the message, possibly several more times, due to its being ignored). Furthermore, if one receives a message that contains a personal request or kind words, or that reflects an investment of hard work (such as a report), and he does not acknowledge the message and express an interest or appreciation for that which was sent, the other party will quite likely feel dejected and discouraged, and perhaps greatly insulted.

Parshat Yitro is the Torah's primer on proper and effective communication. Although the personal discourse between Moshe and Yitro is loaded with wisdom and lessons of emunah (faith) and good character, and it requires its own attention and study, we can glean from the narrative of Mattan Torah the essentials of refined, sensitive and potent dialogue and messaging.

May we heed the lessons and examples of Moshe and our ancestors at Sinai, and of the Master of the Universe Himself, by conducting and elevating our communications to heights of ultimate mentchlichkeit and holiness.